ASEAN-China Defense Cooperation: Recent Developments

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Defense cooperation is widely regarded as the highest level of collaboration between nations, typically pursued only when there is a significant level of trust and confidence between them. Such cooperation often serves as a means of building confidence, demonstrating a country’s commitment to strengthening its relationships with other nations. China has been trying to improve its relations with ASEAN, a regional bloc containing Southeast Asian nations, as part of its strategic objective to bolster its influence in this geopolitically important area. Both parties have already established several cooperation mechanisms and conducted joint military exercises to improve their defense ties. However, given the current geopolitical context in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region, Chinese efforts to deepen its defense ties with ASEAN are under challenge. The growing military presence of the US in the region, along with the assumption of Indonesia as the new Chair are buzzing some alarms for China. Despite these, China’s persistent endeavors to cultivate robust defense cooperation illustrate its commitment to solidifying its control over this strategically significant region.

ASEAN-China Defense Cooperation

In November 2021, President Xi Jinping and the leaders of ASEAN countries formally declared the establishment of the China-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership, marking a significant milestone in the relationship between the two parties. This achievement was the culmination of a series of previous interactions and initiatives that had taken place over an extended period. Since the early 2000s, China has actively engaged in ASEAN+ activities. For instance, in 2000, China hosted the Fourth ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Meeting of Heads of Defense Colleges and began contributing to the ARF Annual Security Outlook. In 2003, it proposed the establishment of a joint Security Policy Conference (SPC) to facilitate dialogue. In 2010, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) was formed with Chinese collaboration. Additionally, both parties regularly convene separate meetings of defense ministers to build trust and confidence in the military domain. For example, the 13th China-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Informal Meeting took place in June 2022.

The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise-2018 was successfully carried out in China off the southern city of Zhanjiang. It included the implementation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), along with search and rescue operations and communications exercises. This is the first time ASEAN as a whole has participated in a military exercise with a single nation, and the first time China has participated in a maritime exercise with ASEAN. China organizes joint military exercises with Southeast Asian nations outside the ASEAN framework. Later this year, China is organizing a multinational joint exercise called Aman Youyi (meaning peace and friendship) that will involve five Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Recently, China has also conducted joint military drills with Singapore and Cambodia and participated in a multinational exercise in Thailand. Despite the ongoing tensions South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, continues military engagement between China and ASEAN is definitely a positive sign. However, the context is changing as the US’s military engagement in the region is on the rise and change of leadership in ASEAN.

Rising Engagement of the US Military in the Region

The growing competition between the US and China is noticeable which leads many experts to warn about the coming of a new Cold War. Besides Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea (SCS) has emerged as a strategically significant area in 21st-century politics. Along with natural resources, the SCS contains some of the world’s most vital commercial shipping lines. For China, the SCS holds immense strategic value due to the presence of its major naval base in Sanya, located in Hainan. Moreover, it serves as a vital gateway for China’s access to the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, the US wants to maintain its freedom of navigation in the SCS, as China has disputed maritime claims there. In addition, Chinese maritime disputes with Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have prompted these Southeast Asian nations to maintain strong defense ties with the US in an effort to create some form of equilibrium in the region. And the US has taken advantage of the situation to strengthen its position within the ASEAN bloc.

In 2022, President Biden and ASEAN leaders elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during the 10th annual US-ASEAN Summit. The US has been strengthening its ties with ASEAN for many years, establishing a dedicated Military Advisor/Liaison Officer at the US Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta in 2011 and hosting the US-ASEAN Defense Forum for the first time in Hawaii in 2014. Both parties also have the US-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting. However, significant development took place when the US and ASEAN conducted their first-ever joint maritime exercises in 2019 right after the Chinese joint exercise with ASEAN. In addition, it has established bilateral defense ties with ASEAN countries. For instance, the US conducted the largest-ever joint military exercise with its treaty ally in the Philippines, involving more than 17,600 military personnel. These developments demonstrate the US’s commitment to strengthening its defense ties with ASEAN vis-à-vis China.

Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship

Indonesia has assumed the leadership of ASEAN for 2023. After assuming the new role, Indonesia immediately began working to strengthen regional integrity, which had been significantly damaged by the influence of extra-regional powers. Indonesia recently announced that it will host the first-ever ASEAN military exercise in the South China Sea later this year. The drills will not involve combat training, but will instead focus on “ASEAN centrality.” Indonesian military chief Yudo Margono stated that the drills will take place in the “North Natuna Sea,” which was renamed by Jakarta in a similar fashion to the Philippines’ designation of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea.” This is in order to challenge Beijing’s claims of “traditional rights” in the waters. However, Cambodia has thrown a diplomatic obstacle to the joint military exercise plans within ASEAN, seeking to strike a delicate balance between the regional bloc and Beijing.

Despite all these developments, China is still trying to strengthen its defense ties with the ASEAN. For example, China joined the 2023 Multilateral Naval Exercise Komodo, which was held off the coast of Makassar, South Sulawesi. This Indonesian-initiated drill involved 36 nations and over 40 vessels. Moreover, recently the Chinese and Singaporean defense ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the establishment of a secure defense telephone link.

These developments indicate a stable and continuous ASEAN-China defense cooperation despite having so many issues between them. For ASEAN, this provides a good balancing tool against the powerful countries in the region. Furthermore, it will ensure continued engagement with China, with whom numerous ASEAN nations have maritime disputes. Continuous engagement of this nature will facilitate easing tension and foster cooperation for a prosperous future.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Geopolitics [Link]